The basic idea of the Harvard researchers amounts to imitating how a jellyfish attacks its prey. The tentacles, about 30 centimeters long, are made of rubber, they fill with air and can catch an object, even heavy, even with an odd shape. As the tentacles are soft, they can adapt to any shape. What explain researchers from the John Paulson School of Engineering at Harvard, is that each tentacle taken individually has no strength, but when they are all activated at the same time, everything changes. Just take the air pressure off and each tentacle will go limp again. A technology that seems straight out of a science fiction film.
A tentacle is more effective than a hand because, obviously, reproducing the movements of a hand represents a greater challenge than one might imagine. The mechanism of a hand is extremely complex and current software struggles to recreate an equivalent level of dexterity. Instead, researchers are trying to find alternative solutions, such as tentacles or claws.
Robotic grippers, often metallic, pose a problem for grasping fragile objects or objects of a certain shape. Harvard researchers take the example of these pliers to catch stuffed animals in fairgrounds. They say they wanted to reinvent our interactions with objects. This kind of soft, flexible robotics simplifies the process. No need to install sensors, create algorithms, maintain machine-learning or have a human operator to carry out the operation.
The fact that these tentacles can catch fragile things without damaging them necessarily opens up horizons. Why not imagine a use in agriculture, with the picking of fruits or vegetables ? Or in the management of goods in warehouses ? The Verge website [en anglais] evokes marine biology : drones could gently examine corals, for example. Applications in medicine can also be imagined. But for now, the invention is not yet on the market. Its creators wouldn’t even have given it an official name yet. A reporter from The Verge offered “Mr. Jelly Hand”“Monsieur Main de Méduse” in French, and the Cnet site tried “the flying spaghetti robot”.